Since this blog does get filed under the category Open Source, I thought I'd take time out here and there to talk about some of my favorite open-source applications, not just Linux (or OSes in general). I'll start with an app that has breathed unexpected new life into some of my DVDs: MPlayer.
Why use an open-source media-player application like MPlayer when I've already got, say, PowerDVD or Nero ShowTime (both of which came packed as freebies with DVD burners that I bought)? Simply because MPlayer has a couple of features I've not seen in any commercially produced DVD player program -- features I've wanted for a long time, which no company has seen fit to add to their products but which have shown up in a product that doesn't even cost anything.
The problem I have been experiencing, and which MPlayer was able to address, involves the way films are transferred to NTSC DVDs. Film runs at 24 frames a second; video 30 frames a second, with the even and odd lines in the picture alternating across two fields in each frame. When film is transferred to DVD, each frame is broken across a varying number of those fields. Most of the DVDs offered by the major studios are mastered in such a way that the player can intelligently reconstruct the 24 frames and play them back as 24 frames for the best possible picture quality. (I'm leaving out a few details for the sake of brevity, but that's basically it).
PowerDVD and Nero ShowTime do this just fine on a properly mastered DVD, so I still use them routinely for those titles. But when they play DVDs that were mastered from film but haven't been authored for proper 24-frame playback, they look terrible. MPlayer, on the other hand, can be set up to analyze the picture stream and make a best effort at reconstructing 24-frame playback from those discs. It isn't perfect -- about one out of every four frames is duplicated, which makes the picture a little "jumpy" -- but it's still a lot better than what I get out of either commercial program. Some of my favorite movies (like the samurai epic Gojoe) suffer from these issues, so to be able to fix this problem in software is a huge boon.
This is one of those areas where the open-source philosophy excels: solving niche problems that aren't always addressed by the marketplace at large. Someone else who is at least as much of a movie buff as I am (or at least attentive to these issues!) saw this problem, knew how to do something about it, rolled up their sleeves, and helped address it. Moreover, the solution is free -- both for other people to use without paying for it, and for other people to adapt into other solutions.
To that end, there are a remarkable number of third-party builds of MPlayer for both Windows and Linux users. On the Windows side, I've settled on SMPlayer -- partly because other ports of the program haven't been as well-behaved as I would have hoped, and also because SMPlayer's interface in particular is quite polished.
I should note that MPlayer has some things that are plainly missing. For one, it doesn't work with DVD navigation menus at all, and on some titles with odd title/chapter structures it doesn't work unless you override the default playback options. Not everyone may tolerate such things, so people who want a slightly more polished user experience should use the also-open-source VLC (which I'll go into separately another time) -- although MPlayer has two things VLC doesn't have: the aforementioned 24-frame reconstruction filter, and the ability to step forward by single frames.